* (Halloween countdown post #2)
‘Kathe Koja’s work has always wrestled with complex issues: the limits of agonistic art, performance/performativity, and expressions of embodiment. From her groundbreaking debut novel, The Cipher (1991), to her 1997 collection Extremities, the author often evaluates these topics through the porous boundaries of horror. Of course, it is not only Koja’s compelling thematic engagements that set her writing apart, but also her crackling, inimitable, urgent prose style.
‘Koja’s career-long fixations persist in her new collection, Velocities, one of the most vital, haunting, and commanding genre releases in recent years. Particularly noteworthy is the book’s interest in art (especially performance art) as a catalyst for negotiations with trauma. Two stand-out examples are “Velocity,” which sees its performance artist reliving a horrific event through his work, and “Pas de Deux,” which depicts a woman grappling with the interior catharsis of dance versus exterior demands on her body. Indeed, this tension between desires of interiority and those of embodied, physical reality (central to novels like Skin  and Strange Angels ) shows up repeatedly throughout this collection.
‘When dealing with Koja, one of the twentieth century’s major American horror novelists, it seems impossible to avoid the question of genre. Is Velocities a “genre” collection? Undoubtedly Koja lays bare her expertise on genre forms and modes (“The Marble Lily” might be the most convincing contemporary imitation of nineteenth-century Gothic I’ve read), but this book circumvents categorical structures at nearly every turn. Within the first couple stories, it dawned on me that Koja’s fiction is simply a genre unto itself; hers is a body of work defined by singular style. Truly, Koja’s voice is among the most distinctive and invigorating I have encountered.
‘Koja maximizes on that which is specific to the written medium; her wildly unique prose style delivers affective experiences that I cannot imagine transmitting fully to any other artistic form. At the same time, though, this author draws often on the tactility of performance and dance, imagining the many ways in which artistic modes can either mirror or contend with each other.
‘Suffice to say that Velocities is, like any other Koja book, a major event. This writer’s work has had more impact on me and my work than I can express. Time and again, her fiction has reinvigorated me and helped me to imagine the boundless literary potential of genre. It is no exaggeration to say that she is among the most important writers in horror, and a major figure in contemporary American fiction more broadly.’ — Mike Thorn
Kathe Koja Site
Kathe Koja @ goodreads
Kathe Koja @ Twitter
The Exchange: Kathe Koja @ The New Yorker
Podcast: What the Fish Went Through with Kathe Koja
AN INTERVIEW WITH KATHE KOJA
Velocities: Stories by Kathe Koja – weird from the inside out
Hi Kathe! Thanks for stopping by to do this interview!
Kathe Koja is creating Immersive fiction
A new voice in historical fiction
The Horror! The Horror! – Kathe Koja
Exclusive Interview: Velocities Author Kathe Koja
Hash it out with Kathe Koja in Episode 98 of Eating the Fantastic
Happy Sunday, Witches!
Dancing in the dark at Kathe Koja’s DARK FACTORY
This Is What Kathe Koja’s THE CIPHER would be if it was a fun little short sci-fi film…
Women in Horror – Interview with Kathe Koja
‘Queen of Angels’, by Kathe Koja
Kathe Koja on Godmothers of Horror: Emily Brontë & Mary Shelley
Kathe Koja Visits Minuteman
NVF Films Interview with Kathe Koja
Virtual Memories #373 – Kathe Koja
Kathe Koja Reads from The Marble Lily
Kathe Koja presents #Velocities in 60 seconds
Lovecraft eZine: Guest: Kathe Koja
Weirdfictionreview.com: What writers were your introduction to “the weird,” whether the Weird Tales kind of weird or something even stranger?
Kathe Koja: Growing up, I read a ton of poetry and ghost stories, but the ones who made a lasting impression were M.R. James, Poe, Stoker; Shirley Jackson came later, as did Angela Carter and Flannery O’Connor. And Wuthering Heights made a *huge* impression on me, too … I gravitate toward intensity.
WFR: What kinds of things did you read and think “this is not for me”?
Koja: To be honest, I can’t remember: that stuff made no lasting impression. Extrapolating backward, I’d imagine it was anything that was too “nice,” too sure of itself, too ready to proffer an explanation for life. Certainly I read my share of crap, which is a good thing — it’s what helps develop your shit detector.
WFR: Was weird fiction welcome in your household growing up? Can you give a sense of your childhood as it relates to your writing?
Koja: The single greatest contribution to my sense of the mysterious as a matter-of-fact was being brought up Catholic. Cheek-by-jowl since infancy with the spirit world, with miracles and blood.
WFR: Can you give us a sense of what that’s like for a child? Was there a time as a child where you took that all literally to some extent?
Koja: Sure, every day. Grown-ups tell you that the stovetop is hot, you touch it: the stovetop is hot. Grown-ups tell you that a vial of blood liquefies on a certain saint’s day every year; why shouldn’t that be true, too?
I can’t speak to what growing up in a religiously observant household is like to a child, but I can say that for me as a child, Catholicism offered an entry into a repertoire almost unmatched of the grisly, radiant, and strange, a world both within and enclosing the everyday world one glimpsed, well, every day. And so much of the iconography was pretty fucking punk rock, as the late Jim Carroll once observed.
WFR: Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and “the gothic,” and does it matter to you as either a writer or reader?
Koja: Second question first: No, because I don’t read by genre, I read by voice; and when I’m writing, my own voice is always my own: weird stuff, YA stuff, historical, whatever the genre may be.
And first question, yes, there are striations between those genres, or subgenres, but I don’t know that it’s meaningful to me as a reader to parse them. Like the working definition/recognition of art and pornography, I know what I like when I see it, and if I don’t like it I put it away.
WFR: What do you think is the appeal of weird fiction generally? The scare? Catharsis? Something else?
Koja: Perhaps the frisson of confirmation: knowing that other eyes have seen that, yes, all is not what we think it is, all is not as it appears, and is stranger than we can imagine, no matter what the culture at large might pretend. Reading history is good for this too, but you have to be careful about your sources.
WFR: How mysterious can a story remain by the end and keep your attention? If “very mysterious,” what is it you’re enjoying that substitutes for explanation?
Koja: I enjoy the mystery itself: it exercises the sense of awe and the problem-solving beaver that is the brain, both at the same time. And it respects my intelligence, my own ability as a reader to fathom and puzzle stuff out.
WFR: What influences do you think readers might be surprised by?
Koja: Depends on the reader, but maybe Thomas Merton and Louisa May Alcott (not just Little Women, but Eight Cousins, Rose In Bloom, all of it). And Jack London!
WFR: When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?
Koja: Trying too hard. It’s like laughter or desire: the more you try to force it, the less possible it becomes.
WFR: What constitutes “trying too hard”?
Koja: When you can feel the hot breath of the writer on your neck. When capital‑E Effects are forced upon you. When it feels like the guy in the next-to-last booth at Shoney’s trying to explain his dreams, with napkin drawings.
WFR: Is there such a thing as “too weird”? What does “too weird” mean to you when someone says it about your own work?
Koja: It means my stuff is probably not for them. And yes, sure, there’s the “too weird” threshold for any- and everybody. I don’t know that I’ve crossed mine yet as a reader/listener/art-and-movie viewer; the frontier looms ahead.
That said, there is a real difference to me between “weird” and “ugly.” Cruelty to the helpless is irredeemably ugly and I can’t stomach it.
WFR: You mean cruelty to the helpless in fiction? What other things turn you off in fiction?
Koja: In the real world double, triple, a million times yes: the human race’s force majeure vis-à-vis every other species on the planet is ugly to see.
In fiction, if you strip cruelty of its meaning, and use it as a casual effect, I don’t want to read your stuff.
WFR: Is the “reveal” of the other-worldly element in a supernatural story the toughest part for the writer to get right? How do you know how much to reveal and how much to hold back?
Koja: You have to let the story itself guide you, or I do, anyway. I never plan or outline, I follow the text, because the text is always right. The text also sometimes says, “This story is not for you to write, try again later, or never,” so in sorrow I have to obey that, too.
WFR: Once you finish writing a draft of a story, then, to what extent do you “test” your instincts in revision?
Koja: I do very little rewriting. Mostly it’s at the behest of my three first readers: Rick Lieder, Christopher Schelling, and Carter Scholz. Their insights are invaluable to me and I respect what they say. If any or all of them find something unclear in a narrative, or call me out on word usage, or think something is Just No Good, then I listen and go back and look. Sometimes I disagree. Sometimes I change it.
WFR: How often does the real world give you something seemingly inexplicable, something weird, that becomes a spark for a story or novel?
Koja: All the time. A story is an interaction between a being or beings and the surrounding environment, whether that environment is spiritual, internal, emotional, set in the Pleistocene, a haunted house, Marie Antoinette’s last levee, whatever. It’s the playground, the pantry, the backdrop, the dictionary of what story can and does do: it’s the World, however that’s defined for the moment of the narrative.
WFR: Can a story appear to be haunted beyond the intent of the writer?
Koja: Best case scenario!
WFR: What’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?
Koja: M.R. James and that toothed, bearded mouth under the mundane nighttime pillow. “Casting the Runes” — read at your own risk.
WFR: Not the white blob in the slideshow?!
Koja: That was very bad, too. Actually I just saw a puppet performance in which one of the actors dressed as La Llorona and moved amongst the kids in the audience, scaring the shit out of several. Reminded me fondly of that magic lantern slideshow.
WFR: Finally, if you had to pick one weird writer who is overlooked and needs to be resurrected and better appreciated, who would it be and why?
Koja: Angela Carter, Angela Carter, Angela Carter! Because she is brilliant; because her fairy tales casually gut everything else and lesser; because she can do it all in a compact and elegant space and leave you thinking it over for days at a time, and remembering it forever. Because she could write so much so effortlessly; get her essays, too, while you’re assembling the oeuvre.
Kathe Koja Velocities
‘These tales have an estimable provenance: “Fireflies” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction (2002), “Road Trip” in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 16 (2002), and other stories in similarly respected books. In “Velocity,” an artist creates his art by running bicycles into trees. This act may be his unorthodox way of understanding his famous architect father’s suicide, which likewise entailed driving into a tree. Some of the characters in these generally grim stories come to terms with a tragedy they don’t want to face: The man in “Road Trip” has intermittent flashes of a car accident (or moments before), and he not only mourns losing a loved one, but his responsibility for the fatality. Other characters, like Anne in “Coyote Pass,” have trouble simply moving on. Anne had cared for her ailing art-collector mother, Susan, for years. Now that Susan has died, Anne wants to adopt a dog, which her mother had never allowed—but getting a puppy from the kennel takes a bizarre, unsettling turn. Koja tackles a handful of genres, including SF, somber drama, and sublimely understated horror. Nevertheless, the highlight of this impressive collection is the Poe-esque “The Marble Lily,” one of two stories herein that hasn’t been previously published. In it, a morgue janitor in Paris closely observes a female cadaver that he believes holds some sort of mystery. Koja’s prose throughout the book provides a bevy of indelible passages: “He pressed her leg, the bare skin below the edge of her cutoffs; his hand was warm, with long strong workman’s fingers, small hard spots like rivets on the palm, his skin a topographic map of his days: cut wood, carry water, name and number and know all the plants in the world.”’ — Kirkus Reviews
It’s hot in here, and the air smells sweet, all sweet and burned, like incense. I love incense, but I can never have any; my allergies, right? Allergic to incense, to cigarette smoke, to weed smoke, to smoke in general, the smoke from the grill at Rob’s Ribs, too, so goodbye to that, and no loss either, I hate this job. The butcher’s aprons are like circus tents, like 3X, and those pointy paper hats we have to wear—“Smokin’ Specialist,” god. They look like big white dunce caps, even Rico looks stupid wearing one and Rico is hot. I’ve never seen anyone as hot as he is.
The only good thing about working here—besides Rico—is hanging out after shift, up on the rooftop while Rob and whoever swabs out the patio, and everyone jokes and flirts, and, if Rob isn’t paying too much attention, me and Rico shotgun a couple of cans of Tecate or something. Then I lean as far over the railing as I can, my hands gripping tight, the metal pressing cold through my shirt; sometimes I let my feet leave the patio, just a few inches, just balancing there on the railing, in thin air . . . Andy always flips when I do it, he’s all like Oh Jani don’t do that Jani you could really hurt yourself! You could fall!
Oh Andy, I always say; Andy’s like a mom or something. Calm down, it’s only gravity, only six floors up but still, if you fell, you’d be a plate of Rob’s Tuesday night special, all bones and red sauce; smush, gross, right? But I love doing it. You can feel the wind rush up between the buildings like invisible water, stealing your breath, filling you right up to the top. It’s so weird, and so choice . . . Like the feeling I always got from you, Baby.
It’s kind of funny that I never called you anything else, just Baby; funny that I even found you, up there in Grammy’s storage space, or crawl space, or whatever it’s called when it’s not really an attic, but it’s just big enough to stand up in. Boxes were piled up everywhere, but mostly all I’d found were old china cup-and-saucer sets, and a bunch of games with missing pieces—Stratego, and Monopoly, and Clue; I already had Clue at home; I used to totally love Clue, even though I cheated when I played, sometimes. Well, all the time. I wanted to win. There were boxes and boxes of Grampy’s old books, doctor books; one was called Surgical Procedures and Facial Deformities and believe me, you did not want to look at that. I flipped it open on one picture where this guy’s mouth was all grown sideways, and his eyes—his eye— Anyway. After that I stayed away from the boxes of books.
And then I found you, Baby, stuffed down in a big box of clothes, chiffon scarves and unraveling lace, the cut-down skirts of fancy dresses, and old shirts like Army uniforms, with steel buttons and appliqués. At the bottom of the box were all kinds of shoes, spike heels, and a couple of satin evening bags with broken clasps. At first I thought you were a kind of purse, too, or a bag, all small and yellow and leathery. But then I turned you over, and I saw that you had a face.
from Pas De Deux
She liked them young, young men; princes. She liked them young when she could like them at all because by now, by this particular minute in time, she had had it with older men, clever men, men who always knew what to say, who smiled a certain kind of smile when she talked about passion, about the difference between hunger and love. The young ones didn’t smile, or if they did it was with a touching puzzlement because they didn’t quite see, weren’t sure, didn’t fully understand: knowing best what they did not know, that there was still so much to learn.
“Learn what?” Edward’s voice from the cage of memory, deep voice, “what’s left to learn?” Reaching for the bottle and the glass, pouring for himself. “And who’ll do the teaching? You?” That smile like an insect’s, like the blank button eyes of a doll made of metal, made from a weapon, born from a knife and see him there, pale sheets crushed careless at the foot of the bed, big canopied bed like a galleon inherited from his first wife—the sheets, too, custom-made sheets—all of it given them as a wedding present by his first wife’s mother: Adele, her name was and he liked to say it, liked to pretend—was it pretense?—that he had fucked her, too, going from mother to daughter in a night, a suite of nights, spreading the seed past four spread legs, and prim Alice could never compare, said Edward, with the grand Adele, Adele the former ballet dancer, Adele who had been everywhere, lived in Paris and Hong Kong, written a biography of Balanchine, Adele who wore nothing but black from the day she turned twenty-one, and “I don’t understand,” he would say, head back, knee bent, his short fat cock like some half-eaten sausage, “what you think you can teach me, aren’t you being just a little bit absurd?”
“We all have something to learn,” she said, and he laughed, left the room to return with a book, Balanchine & Me: Balanchine in color on the cover, a wee black-and-white of Adele on the back. “Read this,” putting the book into her hands. “Find out how much you don’t know.” Whiskey breath and settling back into bed, glass on his chest, big hairy chest like an animal’s, he liked to lie naked with the windows open, lie there and look at her, and “Are you cold?” he would say, knowing she was freezing, that her muscles were cramping. “Do you feel a draft?”
No, she could have said, or yes or fuck you or a million other responses, but in the end she had made none of them, said nothing, got out. Left him there in his canopied bed and found her own place, her own space, living above her studio: dance studio, she had been away for a long time but now she was back and soon, another month or two, she would have enough money maybe to keep the heat on all the time, keep the lights on, keep going. Keep on going: that was her word now, her world, motion at any cost. She was too old to be a dancer? had been away too long, forgotten too much, lost the fascistic grace of the body in torment, the body as a tool of motion, of the will? No. As long as she had legs, arms, a back to bend or twist, as long as she could move she could dance.
In the cold.
In the dark.
p.s. Hey. ** Armando, Thanks. Happy that the post hit your zeitgeist. Well, let’s just completely agree to completely disagree on Noe then. Simple enough. Yes, I got your email. Hugs back, sir. ** Misanthrope, Excellent! About the work-related satisfaction. Surely that trouble maker formerly known as LPS can find something in Halloween to sink his teeth into. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Ooh, that does sound fun and interesting. The assignment. Be twisty. ** G, Hi, G! Very happy the post set off fireworks inside mighty you. I have read the novel, and I liked it very much. She’s an excellent scribe. If I had come across a jpeg or gif of that scene/moment in question, you can bet it would have been at the top of the stack or even acting as the post’s crown. Strange I didn’t (come across one). Oh, no, I found the Haneke interview somewhere online. Never met the man, unfortunately, so far. Of course the crappy aspect of the teaching comes from the top. You know me and power structures, but what can you do, you know? I’m glad it’s mostly an upper and promising. Cool about the lecture watchers liking ‘3:45 AM’. That’s not a given these days, goodness knows. Thank you for including it. Same goes to you for the constant inspiration, my friend. Have a swell Friday. It’s deluging rain here today, but no problem. ** Brian O’Connell, Hi, Brian! A very warm welcome to here, sir! I’m, of course, pleased that the post aligned with your interest in Haneke. Interesting about ‘… the most ethically minded … ‘. I can see that, and I think I would agree. I do really like ‘The White Ribbon’. It’s among my favourites of his. ‘Cache’ is very good. They’re all very worth seeing. There is this kind of vibe about Russia where you can believe there are cannibal cults there. Its charisma is very roomy. Yes, QAnon latched onto the blog for about 48 hours a couple of months ago, briefly deciding it was a portal for child trafficking and snuff or something. But then I think realising that the other posts here are about amusement parks and brainiac film/art/writing confused them, and they moved on. Or, oh, I hope so. Scary times are the words. Thanks again for talking with me. Please do so again at the drop of a hat. How are you, apart from the scariness buffeting. What are you up to? ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Mm, I don’t think Haneke’s work is sadistic. I don’t think it intends to humiliate or cause harm, etc. and take pleasure in that. I think it’s manipulative, sometimes too overtly and/or ambitiously, but that’s very different. Good luck isolating that clipping sound. Nice idea. ** Dominik, Hi, Dom! Yeah, if you watch ‘Funny Games’, watch the original, not the English remake, or that’s my advice anyway. Unless you really, really like Michael Pitt. Ah, you know, you’ve seen one boner, you’ve seen ’em all, ha ha. I get a huge amount of ‘rescued animal’ videos on Facebook. Constantly. And I guess I do pause occasionally to watch them. And I guess they know I do. Technology is so weird. Thank you for the promise of funding our film if you get super wealthy! Cheap Trick! You must know I passionately love Cheap Trick! Thank you, thank you. Love that transforms that super tall column in Hősök tere into a giant boner belonging to the boy of your choice and turns Archangel Gabriel into a voluminous spurt of his cum, Dennis. ** Bill, Hi, Bill! I liked ‘Happy End’. It seemed to divide a lot of people I know, and I wouldn’t put it at the top of his oeuvre necessarily, but it’s odd and sharp, I think. The last time I’d heard/seen the words ‘tea lights’ was out of the mouth of my late grandmother many decades ago, so good question. Oh, no, the return of the skyward diceyness. Good luck, pal. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I’ve heard that too about Haneke personally. Not a surprise really, maybe surprisingly. ** Nick Toti, Hi there, Nick. Good to see you, bud! I do know the work of David Shields, yes. I don’t know him personally. He’s very good. That’s a fantastic idea/possibility: you adapting him. My esteem for him just went further up based his taste in adapters. Cool, man. All luck on that working out if you need luck. If Parc Asterix didn’t have a Halloween makeover with four haunted houses for me to visit soon, I might indeed be a basket case. Take care. ** Okay. I thought I would take the occasion of Halloween to throw some light on one of the books by horror (and more) auteur/author Kathe Koja. Give it your shot. See you tomorrow.